How Much Sacrifice?

All of us have been making little sacrifices to God our whole lives, trying to give the smallest amount possible. All this while keeping score, of course: I gave this, where is my payback?

And who among us hasn’t complained when He takes something away? So there we are, always asking Him, “Isn’t it enough, yet? Haven’t you taken enough?”

But what you’re giving Him isn’t what He wants. He’s not interested in all your hard work, nor your mental acuity or your spiritual sacrifice. He wants you to give the whole game up. And until you do, you are always going to be thinking that You Are Not Good Enough. That’s how he ropes you back in. You are always going to be restless.

But we are each like a wild horse, needing to be exhausted in mind, body and spirit, before we are ready to give up everything and let Him take over.

So, in a way, having the rug pulled out from under you is like finding the fast lane. You are suddenly in deeper than you thought you could handle, and you won’t be bargaining any longer.

Gladiators

Even Christ says, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)

In the Gladiator movie, Comodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, is told by his father that not he, but Maximus (Russell Crowe) has been chosen to be his successor to the throne. Maximus is the natural choice, owing to all his good qualities.

Comodus is very disappointed. He replies that he had once received a letter from his father listing the four chief virtues: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. He says, “As I read the list, I knew I had none of them; but I have other virtues, Father.” He then lists these: ambition, resourcefulness, courage, devotion. “But none of my virtues were on your list,” he adds.

“Your faults as a son is my failure as a father,” says Marcus, right before Comodus cruelly kills him, accuses Maximus of the murder and snatches the throne for himself.

This story of a last-minute switch of command is a theme in many stories, notably the Hindu mythological story of spiritual rebirth, The Ramayana, where a similarly unworthy son replaces the worthy and beloved son on the very evening before the coronation, while the latter is sent into exile.

Still, after watching the film a number of times, I could never quite digest the fact that Comodus didn’t simply acquiesce to his father’s wish and accept the superiority of Maximus. Why couldn’t he have become Maximus’ loyal servant, serving by his side for many years and eventually learning—and acquiring—those chief virtues himself?

“Because he can never acquire those virtues,” said Domenico. “Those virtues belong to God alone.”

Sadly, he was right. Our ego is like Comodus; we usurp a power that has not been given to us, and eventually we find out that we are not fit to rule. If we want those chief virtues to win, we learn to step aside.

Waterwheel

Had a fun conversation with my dear friend Domenico yesterday, in which we spoke of the kind of arrogance that can sometimes come from thinking that “the light” needs you to promote itself to others. I remembered two bozos on a stage in Milano once, congratulating themselves for “bringing light to the world.”

“It’s like a waterwheel thinking that it pushes the river,” Domenico said.

We had a good laugh at that one.

For a while we puzzled over the implications of wheels and water and pride and self-definitions, then we became quiet. The waterwheel actually would have been slowing down the river, due to friction. So as the flowing river spun the wheel faster and faster, what would the wheel be saying a few years later—after being totally demolished by the strong current? Would it still be bragging then?

We had a good pause at that one.

Boat photo

I dreamed last night that I was sitting in a boat. It was like a canoe but maybe a little bit wider. Strangely, I was posing. Then I could see why. Someone was taking my picture from over my shoulder. We were trying to set it up so that it looked like the boat was in the water.

At a certain point, I thought, “What the heck am I doing? Either the boat is in the water, and it’s a real picture . . . .” Of course, if the boat were really in the water, we wouldn’t be able to take the picture at all.

So I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go somewhere . . . or whether I wanted to pretend to be going somewhere. Just to have my picture taken!

I remember feeling a moment of shame, as if I had just discovered a hidden prankster stowing away in my heart. I prayed, then and there, that the boat could be instead pushed away from the shore and into the water. My dream self was telling me that it could no longer stand pretending to be in the river.

It wanted real self-discovery.

Beach house

I dreamed last night about a beach house in Malibu, all wooden floors, floor-to-ceiling windows and white furniture. It wasn’t my house, but I was living there. I was house-watching for a friend.

I put everything in order and was about to leave, when I saw them coming: a rowdy group of about 30 partyers, friends of friends, boisterous and rowdy, walking up the street and looking for a house to play in. And they were heading straight for this one!

I knew that if somehow they got inside, they would be shrieking and spilling and abusing this place for days. I would get absolutely ZERO SLEEP the whole time. As they barreled towards me, I turned off the lights, locked the front door and quickly slipped out of eyesight. If they thought no one was home they’d simply move on to someone else’s house.

Knob turning, pounding, bell ringing. I sat stock-still with my heart beating fast. Just move along, now. Please!

Suddenly a doubt sprang to mind: I hadn’t checked to see if the back door was locked . . . and now a group was moving along the deck, headed right for it! Staying low to remain out of sight, I scurried over and stuck the key in the lock. Too late! Before I could lock it, the door burst open and the whole noisy crew swept in and filled up the place from one corner to the next.

I awoke kicking myself for not having been better prepared, for not having kept better vigilance over my little empire. The back door is how they always get in. All my bad habits.

Staying inside tonight

Sitting on my sofa tonight, feeling good and musing over all the options that are calling me to go out: a party at John’s, a live concert, or simply a walk in the park with friends.

The stars are out now. Maybe just a little stroll in the spring air.

But tonight, maybe for the first time I can remember, there’s a different offering. Tonight something is calling even louder for my attention: my heart.

Yes, friends, I lie down on my sofa, close my eyes, and feel that rare warmth spread all over my body. Have I been looking all my life only for this? What is this delight coming over me, this sheer joy?, me and my heart finally free to feel one another, without distraction . . . interweaving themselves in appreciation and attraction and gratitude, making everything else unimportant.

As if we’ve had this date planned for eons. Ancient Lovers finally meeting again.

Gone missing

My cat Buddy has gone missing again, I haven’t seen him for three whole months. In fact, this time he’s been gone so long that when he comes around he sneaks through the open kitchen door, steals food, and runs off if I call him. He doesn’t even remember that this is his home, where he lived for two years! He’s forgotten that he could just come through the front door without any fear at all and take as much as he pleases.

Similar are we when we’ve been away from the Divine for too long. We take a little inspiration, a little warmth, a loving conversation… then we run off and hide. We don’t stay long.

We’ve forgotten that it’s our home, too.

Tornado

Well, I made it. I’ve faced all manner of whirlwind and danger to arrive, and here I am, standing perfectly in the middle of a small circle, an island in the eye of the hurricane. Here there is only perfect stillness and peace. Here all is quiet and serene.

Outside, well… that’s another matter. Outside reigns confusion, outside the world is spinning in a kind of distorted frenzy, teetering crazily up and down, the air choked with flying bullets, tomatoes, dust, turds. If I even crane my neck slightly and tilt my head out of the safe zone, towards any story of future or past, I risk being swept back into the fray. Then it’s touch and go. At the very least, if I do make it back to this safe haven, I’ll be covered in mess and confusion.

So I’m holding strong in my 2×2 foot square, my mind still as a rock, then something strange happens. Someone asks me how I’m doing.

“Don’t do it,” I hear myself saying, “pretend not to hear them.”

Because to find out how I’m doing, I’m going to have to step outside of my island. I’ll have to venture outside, just to see where I am. It’s like the uncertainty principle in quantum physics – you can either know a) where an atom is, as a point in space–but not in which direction it’s heading, or b) you can see it as a wave–you see the direction it’s moving in–but you can’t say where along the wave the point actually lies. You can’t know both.

So I can know that I am sitting in the present moment, but I can’t find out where I am. And that makes it hard for me to find myself, because we almost always define ourselves in terms of direction (career, relationships, etc.).

Most incredibly – and don’t tell anyone I told you this – from inside that circle, it really no longer matters where I’m going, because all I had to do was get to this central place and then let the tornado guide me where it wants me to go.

Just don’t ask me how I’m doing.

A New Part of Town

“Did I tell you my friend Mary hurt her leg yesterday?”

A short moment of silence ensues. Every time I find myself speaking with my mother, we come to an impasse, a crossroads of a sort. To the right is her part of town, the part where God is good but sometimes makes mistakes. To the left is my part, and there all is perfect, even if not readily understood.

When we talk, it’s not a question of IF we will arrive at this crossroads, but WHEN. Will it be in the first five seconds, or will we dawdle a bit, perhaps racking up two or three exchanges before we get there? Let’s see….

I might start off saying, “I’m sorry to hear that,”… but that wouldn’t be completely honest. That’s what I’m supposed to say… but to my mind, there has to be some good reason for it happening. So instead I might wager a “Really, how did it happen?” And the conversation may go on uneventfully for another 45 seconds or so, until I try to pull her into my part of town, because I actually enjoy speculating on what the good reason might be… Is Mary supposed to learn to sit still and listen for awhile, learning patience and stillness? Is she supposed to let someone else take care of her for awhile, learning humility and receiving?

Anyway, the other day, I found myself in a new part of town, one I had never even imagined, a white part of town. There were no streets or buildings, just white light… like in the film The Matrix. Surrounded by this bright white light all around me, I felt no fear, and I knew all to be perfectly under control. Wonderfully, I felt no need to explain or understand anything, as if my need to understand had finally run its course. I could really just sit back and relax, without demanding from God any more explanations for what He does. As the New Yorker cartoon says, showing an old man grinning over a pile of books in a library: “By God, for a minute there it suddenly all made sense!”

Anyway, I suddenly understood that, from this place, from this singular point of view, all my earlier musings had in reality been on the same side of town as my mother’s. With a little shame, I saw that my speculation had just been another form of doubt, not much different from hers.

God certainly didn’t need my reasoning, or my permission, to run the universe.

Carbon Dream

The other morning I had a dream in which I was with a friend who was proudly showing me what he had accomplished in the last year, and it was quite a lot. He had built a brand new house on a hill, three-stories tall, with two cars in the garage and a light-filled house complete with beautiful art and wonderful architecture. I’m not prone to jealousy, but it did occur to me that I, too, had had a productive year and had something to share.

So in the dream I invited him to the house I’ve been renting in Umbria, a wonderful 4-bedroom house on a hill with a lovely panorama of the Umbrian hills. I’ve had quite a difficult year – as anyone who knows me will attest – so I had no idea what I was going about to show him. It surprised me when I didn’t lead him into the house, as I would have imagined, but around the back, to a corner next to the fence where I’ve been throwing out ashes all winter from the two wood stoves I heat the house with. (I’ve come to think of these stoves, burning throughout the winter, as a kind of constantly burning heart in the center of my life, purifying me.)

Proudly, I reached into one of the dozens of ash-piles and pulled out a chunk of burned carbon for us to see, larger than most, with jet-black facets and a real shine to it. It was a wonder to behold. “I remember this one,” I said, as tears came to my eyes. “Oh, and look,” I said, picking up another beauty, “there’s this one here.”